Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Practical approaches to nonviolence

The Quaker group Turning the Tide works with communities in the UK and Kenya. Edward Dingwall caught up with Steve Whiting.

June 11, 2014
9 min read

Non-violence(sculpture in Borås, Sweden, photo credit: Mikael Ejdemyr)

‘We campaign, and work towards social and political objectives. But if we’re not living in a way that fits the world we want to make, then we’re not going to get there … How we do our work is as important as what we do,’ says Steve Whiting, a staff member at Friends House in London.

Whiting works on Turning the Tide, an outreach programme of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, begun in 1994, which has helped groups – focused on the environment, anti­capitalism, co­housing and more – develop their own nonviolent approaches to radical change and social justice.

For Quakers, violence ‘isn’t just physical’, but can include damaging economic, social or belief systems. ‘It’s anything that prevents human flourishing,’ Whiting explains. ‘Every one of us internalises the violence of the culture we grow up in. When we looked around, we felt that a lot of groups didn’t have the sense of depth to overcome that.’

Turning the Tide’s workshop methodology reflects a belief in self­realisation. ‘We don’t teach non­violence, that’s important. It’s a process of inclusive, participatory learning … It’s about drawing out what people already know, and getting them to consider that, often in a new way.’

People healing their communities

Turning the Tide recently completed a three­-year collaboration with the Kenyan organisation CAPI (Change Agents for Peace International), working in communities that had experienced significant post­election violence.

Starting in 2010, the two groups established partnerships with local people who would take the lead on running the programme, which included residential training and meetings every few months to address problems as they arose. Work began at Khayega, in the Western Region, before moving into Nairobi, then to the northern Rift Valley.

‘Following the post­election violence in 2008, we found many people working to rebuild and heal their communities … However, there were common frustrations they would keep coming up against: corruption, nepotism, impunity, non­judicial killings. Overcoming problems like those requires sustained effort.’ The end goal, Whiting says, was to give more individuals and groups the skills, competence and credibility to build campaigns.

‘Volunteers and participants contributed to planning from the start, so they saw from the start that it was inclusive … We asked questions and made sure they were involved at every stage, facilitating sessions, reflecting and giving daily feedback … If you have one Kenyan woman from a previous workshop tell a new group “I was sat where you were, and this is what I’ve achieved,” it makes a powerful difference.’

Walking through fences

British and Kenyan participants learned much from each other over the three years. Some aspects of Turning the Tide’s approach were new. Whiting says they ‘insisted on equal numbers of men and women, which was unusual. There were some issues because we didn’t pay participants, like many NGOs do. But we explained: you won’t be able to pay the supporters you need when you are running workshops and campaigns. Change has to come from our motivation for justice.’

Ideas and perspectives had to be translated into mutually understood terms. Sometimes it was a simple matter of adjusting language. ‘In Kenya, the term “activist” means only means only those who are involved in violence.’ Other times, it was the message. ‘The weekend we started work, our hotel room was burgled, we lost a lot of equipment,’ Whiting recalls. ‘We were placed under armed guard and it took a lot of explaining that as a group learning nonviolence we didn’t want it.’

Often for the British staff, it was about understanding a different kind of experience. ‘There was a minor fire in the hotel, no one was hurt, but it brought memories to the surface. Some of our participants’ homes had been burned in the violence, some had fled into even worse circumstances. There was a level of trauma there which we could only imagine. It was incomparable, but once we understood, that actually allowed us to go much deeper, much more quickly, it made the space feel safer for everyone,’ says Whiting.

In some ways, the sessions mirrored those held with countless groups in the UK. ‘We find ways to put people outside their comfort zone, where the best learning happens … Sometimes it’s a simple matter of partnering them with someone who has taken action before. Other times in the UK we might say, “what would it feel like to cut that fence and walk through?” ’

Some workshop content was also adapted, as Turning the Tide found that participants could not immediately relate to some of the conceptual models used in the UK. The solution was to begin with participants’ stories and worked outward towards broader themes.

The Kenyan participants have now established a network of volunteer trainers and campaigners, which they’ve also called Turning the Tide, and are growing from strength to strength. Community campaigns have won legal victories against household evictions, dealt successfully with issues of corruption at a hospital, stopped bank foreclosures, forced an international quarry company to repair local buildings damaged by their explosions, and encouraged boda­boda motorcycle taxi drivers to assert their rights as workers.

Whiting feels the collaboration in Kenya resulted in a unique, culturally transferrable model of working. ‘We want to have that same sustained involvement here at home, with hubs that bring different campaigns together.’

What props up injustice?

This new approach draws on twenty years’ experience and activism. Turning the Tide has its roots in the peace movement, particularly the direct action campaigns of Trident Ploughshares and Faslane 365. The Religious Society of Friends, Quakers, have opposed war for more than 350 years. Whiting emphasises though, ‘There is no rule that says members must be pacifists, that tells them what to believe. Each generation has to learn it for themselves.’

Pacifist and nonviolent beliefs often meet with opposition, criticised for their refusal to engage in the realities of conflict, or to be persuaded by apparent moral justifications. ‘The Quaker response comes through experience, both spiritual and historical,’ says Whiting. ‘Sometimes we’re very unpopular, but we don’t simply reject violence and sit smugly with high principles, we actively seek alternatives. We try to reach a deeper understanding, then ask: what can we practically do about it?’

‘We have always put ourselves in those positions, in a lot of hot conflicts, to test whether what we call our “testimony to peace” is real and viable. There is often an automatic assumption that violence is inevitable. We explore alternatives and plant a flag at the other end of the spectrum, and open that space for debate.’

Whiting picks an example to demonstrate Turning the Tide’s practical approach. ‘If we’re dealing with a campaign group, one of the first things we’ll do is a power analysis. We want the group to feel empowered from the start, to discover what their part will be in making change come about. There are simple ways to do that.’

‘They’ll be asked to analyse the dynamics of the situation, opponents, allies, power relationships – whether it’s fracking, nuclear weapons or benefit cuts. Who has the power to make the change you want, and how do we build our own power and strategy for change to make it worthwhile for them to negotiate.’

Other techniques help to identify specific, achievable action points of a campaign. ‘Do you want to gain more support from your natural allies, or convince the neutrals? If your goal is “global socialism”, that’s pretty unrealistic at village level. But we help to trace down from that overarching idea to things you can actually do on the ground,’ says Whiting.

‘A single injustice is like the point of an upturned triangle of oppression, which must be held up by a series of props, maybe the military, the police, supply lines and so on. You name them, choose one and work to remove it as a prop to injustice. Keep going, and move onto other props. Quakers, like many others, have a sense of natural law, where the triangle stands on its base.’

Turning the Tide’s work has diversified as activist groups have evolved, and it has stretched out through the international Quaker network. Whiting remembers notable success with human rights monitors and accompaniers in Israel and Palestine. ‘We’ve helped prepare people to accompany others through checkpoints, workers out in the olive harvests, children going to school, potentially very hostile situations. But many of them came back and told us how much our training helped.’

No matter who the participants are, the programme emphasises the need for groups to develop an understanding of their own dynamics in order to deal with internal and interpersonal conflicts. As Whiting sees it, ‘In any set of people, you’ll have different sensibilities, different boundaries and ideas of, for example, what violence or nonviolence is. With direct action, does it include property damage, deceiving a trusting security guard? What about unaccountable actions? What happens if members end up being arrested or in jail?’

‘We can’t say where those lines should be, or what ought to happen, but we set up scenarios which bring those into the open, where the group can acknowledge different understandings and decide on an inclusive way forward. We’re always taking a long­term strategic view. The deeper the change you want to make, the longer it will take.’

Resources on nonviolence are available on Turning the Tide’s website.

Edward is a freelance writer, editor and organiser with a background in education and community engagement. @ER_Dingwall

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero